During the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe, Mourad Benchellali got the chance to show the complexity of the paradigm “freedom vs. control” by telling his personal story. In 2001, advised by his brother, he decided to spend his summer holiday exploring Afghanistan, but unintentionally ended up in a terrorist training camp. Today he gives testimonies of his experiences.

Holiday in Afghanistan

Mourad Benchellali on the right

Mourad Benchellali was 19 when his brother asked him to go to Afghanistan. At that time, he was living with his family in France where he was also born and raised. He wasn’t desperate or socially excluded, but adventurous and eager to see other places of the world. He curiously took a plane to Afghanistan, fascinated by a country so different from where he grew up. Friends of his brother took care of him and welcomed him with a few words that in another setting would have sounded like a polite compliment: “We need young people like you”. In fact, they were the beginning of a horror trip for Mourad whose holiday ended before it even started – in an Al-Qaeda training camp somewhere in the Afghan desert. He had to follow 60 days of training where he listened to sermons on jihad and even faced Osama Bin Laden telling that a major attack in America was going to take place. That was in the early summer of 2001. His requests to leave the camp were ignored, and his wish to go home was soon buried. After the camp had ended, he planned on going to Pakistan from where he wanted to fly back home, but suddenly the borders were closed since two airplanes were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City on the 11th of September.

Fighting in Guantanamo

Mourad crossed the border to Pakistan through an unguarded mountain pass, but soon he got arrested by the special force. He was passed on to the CIA and later on to the American army: “I tought that would be the end of my nightmare.” Instead, he was shouted at, beaten up and tortured, together with 800 others. Mourad ended up in Guantanamo for 2 ½ years. When asking “Who is Al-Qaeda?”, the only answer he got was “Al-Qaeda is YOU”. Mourad describes Guantanamo as a “school for Jihad” and explained how even he, who had never any strong religious affiliations, “had to fight to not become radicalized. This concept of isolating, mistreating and depriving people can drive them into the hands of Jihad fighters. It is counterproductive.”

Testifying around the world

Mourad Benchellali’s story should make us reflect. It shows how tactically young people are being introduced to terroristic networks and the school of Jihad. It also shows how easily one stupid mistake can turn an innocent person into a high risk prisoner. That is what he became when he finally entered his home country again. His release from Guantanamo wasn’t the end of his nightmare: 1 ½ years of imprisonment together with his family members who were all accused of belonging to a terroristic network, followed in France. Luckily, Mourad has found the courage and strength to talk about his side of the story. He is testifying around the world, showing that finding a balance between freedom and control is all but simple; helping others jointly find ways of fighting radicalization. And still, his freedom to travel whereever he wants no longer exists. If a plane crosses American airforce, he isn’t allowed to enter.  And when he followed an invite of an NGO in Canada, he ended up in an orange jumpsuit in Toronto for three days.